The Syrian Julia Maesa was grandmother of two Roman emperors

By Stefan Krmnicek

This is a Roman silver coin of the Syrian Julia Maesa from the coin collection of the Institute for Classical Archaeology at the University of Tübingen. On the obverse we see the bust of Julia Maesa facing right. Her wavy hair is parted in the middle and tied up at the back of her head. The Latin inscription IVLIA MAESA AVG names her as “Empress Julia Maesa”. The green dot in front of her face is an ink blot from the inventory of the coin’s first owner, the physician Dr. Karl von Schäffer (1808-1888). Karl von Schäffer had bequeathed his important coin collection to the Archaeological Institute of the University of Tübingen in his will after his death in 1888. On the reverse of the coin we see Pudicitia, the Roman personification—i.e. a pictorial representation—of female modesty and marital chastity. She is sitting on a throne to the left, dressed in a garment with many folds. In her left hand she holds a sceptre, with her right hand she lifts the veil draped over her head.

This image on the reverse was certainly not chosen for Julia Maesa by chance. As the grandmother of two Roman emperors, she served as a role model. She represented the ideal of how a woman should be in Roman society: demure and chaste. The veil on the head of the personification Pudicitia is a sign of the bride as a symbol of marriage and decency. In reality, however, women in ancient everyday life did not wear veils.

 

Rückseite einer römischen Silbermünze mit dem Porträt der Julia Maesa, Tüb. Inv. IV 633/6. Foto: Stefan Krmnicek, Universität Tübingen.

Julia Maesa came from a socially highly respected family in the Syrian city of Emesa, today’s Homs. After Septimius Severus, to whom her sister Julia Domna was married, was proclaimed Roman emperor in 193 AD, she and her entire Syrian family were related to the imperial house in Rome at a stroke. Julia Maesa’s big time came, however, when she got the military to proclaim the sons of her two daughters as emperor one after the other. Since her two grandsons were still adolescents when she took office, she was able to exert a great deal of influence on the affairs of government in the background. This can be well seen from the fact that, although she was only the emperor’s grandmother, she was even honoured with the title Augusta (“Empress”)—as can be seen on our coin.

With the emphasis on decency, custom and chastity on the coinage, Julia Maesa stands in stark contrast to the dissolute lifestyle of her eldest grandson Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who reigned as emperor in Rome from 218-222 AD, as recorded in the sources. Before becoming emperor, he was the priest of the sun god Elagabal in Emesa and even wanted to make him the supreme Roman deity. That is why Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was called Elagabal after his death. The accusations against Elagabal because of his decadent lifestyle are manifold: for example, he is said to have bathed only in perfumed water, to have worn jewelled shoes, to have kept tame lions and leopards as pets and to have fed his horses in Rome with grapes specially brought from Turkey.

Even more ancient coins from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan can be seen in the Museum of Ancient Cultures of the University of Tübingen at Hohentübingen Castle. The presented coin can also be admired virtually in times of corona and closed museums or for all interested people outside Tübingen free of charge at https://www.ikmk.uni-tuebingen.de/object?id=ID3306

in the Digital Coin Cabinet of the Institute for Classical Archaeology.

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Eine römische Silbermünze mit dem Porträt der Julia Maesa, Tüb. Inv. IV 633/6. Foto: Stefan Krmnicek, Universität Tübingen.

 

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